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Sports books, stockrooms of stories

Biographies of exceptional athletes/coaches are generally better than autobiographies. More widely researched. Less self-serving.

Dhyan Chand with the ball during India’s semi-final match against France in the 1936 Olympics. In his biography, he writes, ‘I realise that I am not a very important man, good enough to write an autobiography...’ Photo: HT
Dhyan Chand with the ball during India’s semi-final match against France in the 1936 Olympics. In his biography, he writes, ‘I realise that I am not a very important man, good enough to write an autobiography...’ Photo: HT

The surfer is reading water. He’s judging waves. It’s about what he sees, what he feels, what he’s learnt in 300 sessions before, at this spot, about swell size, wind speed, wind direction, surface texture, water colour and things so subtle that ancient Polynesian navigators used to “lower themselves into the water between the outriggers on their canoes and let their testicles tell them where in the great ocean they were".

William Finnegan, welcome to my bookshelf. Thank you for Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

My sports book/trivia collection is eclectic. To a point. I don’t have books on Soviet chess schools like my old journo pal V. Krishnaswamy nor dinner menu cards of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) teams from 1933-34 like journalist Boria Majumdar. But I do have Dhyan Chand’s Goal!, where he writes “I realise that I am not a very important man, good enough to write an autobiography...." Humility in sport has long gone, like ash in the wind.

Surfing is now an Olympic sport, so I buy Finnegan’s book ostensibly for “homework". Required reading to be a writer. Sometimes I even buy an autobiography infested with clichés, but which might own a few interesting facts of a cricketing childhood. But Finnegan is far more than that, he lets you feel the water up your nose. He now sits next to five-time Olympic rowing champ Steve Redgrave’s Inspired. Which is a trip into pain.

They row, these men, they eat 6,000-7,000 calories a day. “We all drink out of jugs. They don’t even bother with cups at the club canteen." Then they’re in the weight room. “No one speaks. No one can speak. I’m doing deep knee-bends with a weight-carrying bar across my shoulders. No short cuts. Full squat, bum to heels. Thirty repetitions. It kills your knees, it kills your back. I’ve pinched a nerve in my back. The pain is intense but I’ve just got to get on with it."

Masochism, desire, madness, the ego that believes you are better, the humility to want to be better, so many ways to win, to lose...the more you read, ironically, the less you feel you know.

I met Nadia Comăneci very briefly once and found a hardness to her, and then in her book, Letters To A Young Gymnast, she has this moment: “I’ve read that Bela (Karolyi, the legendary coach) once said about gymnasts: ‘These girls are like little scorpions. You put them all in a bottle and one scorpion will come out alive. That scorpion will be champion’. I was always a survivor, and perhaps that eventually made me a champion." Beneath silk, sting.

I believe boxing books tell the rawest tales and generally find biographies of exceptional athletes/coaches to be better than autobiographies. More widely researched. Less self-serving. Like David Maraniss’ volume on coach Vince Lombardi titled When Pride Still Mattered. Genuises struggle to write about themselves anyway, they can’t easily explain why they’re different from everybody else. Being uncommon is Roger Federer’s natural state of being.

The best biographies also require distance, time for legend and myth to settle. Almost anything great on Muhammad Ali was written later on. Also, Indian cricketers will rarely write completely honest books because the audience is not ready for them. Because if a player even wrote a nuanced chapter on his captain’s leadership—how he was terrific but flawed—TV would self-combust.

I can’t remember my first sports book, perhaps Ajit Wadekar’s My Cricketing Years, but people do. Mudar Patherya, whose retirement from cricket writing at 27 was mad, brave and a literary loss, remembers buying Rajan Bala’s Kiwis And Kangaroos: India 1969, when he was 9. He still has it. In 1969, a British family leaving Durgapur for the UK gave journalist Gulu Ezekiel a book titled The Guinness Book Of Cricket And Football, 1965. He hasn’t lost it.

In the 1970s, the Kolkata footpath was our Amazon. The second-hand shops on Free School Street were our Flipkart. You didn’t order, but you found. If you could stop flipping through Nancy Friday, you might discover a tattered Sobers and a dusted off football annual. There was no television in my father’s home till roughly 1980, so we read quietly to the rain. We didn’t even know a collection had started till a pile grew into a shelf into a bookcase.

I used to show off about my collection till I made a few calls and found modesty. Boria has about 4,500-5,000 books on sport, Krishnaswamy has 2,000-3,000, Patherya has 2,500 cricket books. In 1991, Patherya bought 800 books from the cricket statistician Anandji Dossa for Rs1,500. A steal, yes, but it was half Patherya’s salary then. Ezekiel, obviously a reincarnated librarian, has classified his books alphabetically and his 1,300 cricket books—he has 300 others—stretch from Anthologies to Yearbooks.

But the man who has us all beat is a stocky stockroom of stories. Clayton Murzello, Mid-Day sports editor, didn’t buy sports books initially but decided to get someone to pay him to be surrounded by them.

At 17, he started work at The Marine Sports in Mumbai, which had 700-1,000 sports books. He attended morning college, bunked his last lecture and arrived at the bookshop at 4pm. As he waited for customers, he browsed; as he read, he found his calling.

One visitor to the bookshop, who then became a friend of Murzello’s, was former Ranji Trophy player Kiran Ashar, who coached St Mary’s school, which beat Shardashram English High School (with some fellow called Tendulkar playing) in the 1988 Giles Shield final. Whereupon Ashar asked Murzello, then 20, why don’t you write a story on this upset, which Murzello did and managed to get published in Mid-Day, which he then joined in 1994 and never left.

Great story, pal. Nice collection, too.

But you got any surfing books?

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.

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